Part of what defines our culture are the blockbuster movies that “everyone” sees. Talking about them not only communicates what we think, but helps us work it out. So, how do I, with my Christian faith, respond to the science fiction movie Avatar?

Underneath the love story and background of environmental concern, the main message of the film is about gaining a radically new identity. A man without hope gets to play with a false persona that is more intimate with other people, the environment and even to “god.” This pretend identity trades despair for hope and isolation for belonging. Then, through the miracle of science fiction, he actually becomes that new man!

This is a good piece of science fiction, as it touches on our deep sense of personal brokenness and longing to be someone else – someone better than we are. In the real world, such change seems impossible, so science fiction is used to play with the “what if” scenario of radical personal change – what it would feel like to really become a whole person.

As I watched the moving story, my heart ached for non-Christians enjoying it as I did. Because science fiction isn’t real. Real trees aren’t connected like brain neurons, and even if they were, being “remembered” by a living but temporal ecosystem is hardly eternal life. I realized that millions of people will come away from this film teased into acknowledging their ache for harmony, beauty and enduring life, only to leave the theater realizing that such hopes can never be realized.

In other words, the movie raises a desire for reconciliation without any hope of actual redemption. The movie is pantheistic, and pantheism can never offer redemption. Pantheism worships the creation, and the creation is broken. It is a physician who cannot heal himself. The world can only be saved by its Creator.

What I found fascinating is how even such a pantheistic film has to borrow so heavily on Christianity in order to depict the planet’s salvation. Someone from the “outside” takes humanoid form to become one of the afflicted, suffers rejection (even hanging on something like a cross), dies, and is resurrected as a glorious king to bring about a great victory over the forces of evil. Avatar is not Christian storytelling, but it is good storytelling. And like so many good stories, it echoes the gospel.

Most folks are content to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the movie. Others want to argue about Director Cameron’s environmental politics. I think Avatar presents a wonderful opportunity to explain where the inspirational elements of the film come from. In conversation, I would ask, “Do you think such harmony, beauty and enduring life is really possible?” “If such a place existed, do you think you would fit in?” I would discuss our common, deeply held desire to be someone better than we are.

Then, I would surprise them with my amazing hope that such things are more than science fiction! I would reference the beauty of the film while sharing that there actually will come a day when the planet is no longer frustrated – a day when the mountains sing, the rivers clap their hands, and our fellow creatures no longer have reason to fear human dominion. I would share my own experience of “a second birthday,” and how I am even now discovering my new identity in Christ. While the film is fresh on their minds, I would explain how all this is possible because our Creator literally incarnated his personhood in a human body like ours in order to destroy our real foe, and I intend to spend eternity enjoying the society he is creating.

Avatar’s phenomenal success testifies to the deep longing millions have to be reborn. Such an ache is not in itself a readiness to trust the Living God, but it does give us a platform for creative and compassionate discussion.

People think Avatar is over-the-top beautiful? … wait till they hear the real gospel!

This is the eulogy I gave for my Mom, Faye Parkinson, at her memorial service on October 24, 2009.

The BBC was founded, Johnny Weismuller broke the one minute 100 yard freestyle, Warren Harding introduced the first radio into the White House, construction began on the original Yankee Stadium, and the Eskimo Pie was patented – all in 1922 when Faye Wilson Whitmore was born.

Every one of you who has ever written a eulogy knows how impossible it is to summarize a life in a few moments … and how important it is to try. Faye’s story spanned over eight and half decades. It was a tale of faithfulness to family and to education. Spiritually, Faye’s story was a cliffhanger right up the end.

Her father was trained as an electrical engineer in Montana, and her mother was in nursing when she married. Growing up out West in the late 1800‘s, they were tough, practical, independent people willing to take a risk. Their risk was migrating to romantic Florida to strike it rich raising oranges. They accomplished the Herculean task of clearing away jungle and getting an orchard going just in time for … the Great Depression.

Life was hard for them. Their four children were taught to depend on themselves and each other, and not to find false comfort in religion. Faye told us that she always wanted to go to church as a child, but never had the opportunity. It’s been interesting for me to go through her old newspaper and magazine clippings. So many of Faye’s clippings had religious themes, and warm thoughts about Jesus, even though they were from what you might call a secular point of view.

Florida made some good memories, like her marching band that one first place (she played the baritone). But, as it was for all but the wealthy few, hardship was the name of the game during the Depression. The family scraped by any way they could – renting rooms, Faye assisted in a photographic studio. What a tribute to her parents, Albert and Halle, that all the kids went to college and were prepared for bright futures. Patty would become one of the Army’s first women lawyers; Jean would head up a department at Rutgers University. Faye set her sites on invading the male-dominated world of pharmacy.

But during college, she met a genuine WWII war hero – a decorated young civilian pilot who few as the engineer on 53 bombing missions, and was rewarded by being sent to Pensacola for enough college to fly as an Army pilot. They fell in love, and after an unsuccessful attempt by Bob to love the orange business, they were off to Bob’s hometown of Eastport, Maryland, where Bob carved out a career at Friendship Airport. (Excuse me for being sentimental, but I still like “Friendship” better than “Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall.”)

Life didn’t work out quite as Faye thought it would. At first, sexual harassment in the workplace short circuited her pharmacy career. And then, there were soon three boys to raise. She turned to education, helping the next generation love learning the way she did. She spend 26 years in the Anne Arundel County School System, mostly at Severna Park Elementary, where she touched hundreds of lives, several of whom have kindly written to me upon hearing of her death to tell me how much she meant to them when they were in third grade. Eventually, she rose to Vice Principle at Oak Hill.

In fact, I think my most vivid memory of Faye – vivid because it was reinforced so many nights all through my early years – was of Mom grading papers. She was always grading papers.
Faye was the last survivor of four siblings. Jean just died a couple of years ago. David and Patty are buried at Arlington. David was a pilot on D Day. He survived the war, but was later killed in an air crash testing new equipment. I was seven years old and was there when Mom got the telephone call – it was just about the only time I ever saw her really cry.

Faye taught me a love for learning, for reading, for science, for thinking. I read through all the classics in our small library at home, and hungered for more. My brothers were more normal – into hydroplaning and bicycling and other good stuff. I was the bookworm. It must have been a challenge to raise three fellows with such different interests.

As a child, I remember long road trips to Florida to see her parents, and how good the free orange juice tasted when we crossed the Florida State line. I remember hot summer days at Ocean City with huge french fries and arcades. My idea of heaven as a six year old was to hold out my hands in front of an Ocean City arcade, and watch my parents fill them with nickels – which is what you needed to play those wonderful machines. Faye made the best crab cakes in the whole world, and a truly remarkable lima bean casserole. Most people go camping in a tent. Occasionally, we would take out the 16 foot runabout that Dad and Mom built with their own hands in he back yard. They would throw over an anchor on some river or creek, throw a tarp over our heads, and we would camp out on the water.

She and Bob left Eastport in 1960 to build their dream house on the water at Weems Creek. What a project! I have never worked harder than I did at her side – clearing the land, hand mixing never ending loads of concrete for a large patio, building terraced steps down a 60 foot embankment to our pier, digging out the hillside to add a special family room. Faye especially enjoyed caring for the flowers and landscaping.

During those years at Weems Creek, when I was a young teenager, we would occasionally, at her initiative, watch Billy Graham Crusades together on television. Each time surprised me, because she always echoed, almost in a parrot-like way, her parents’ dislike for conservative religion. She was raised that way, and didn’t see any reason to change. Even so, Mom seemed to look wistful – but each time, we both agreed that the gospel he was selling didn’t really make any sense. Trusting in Jesus for salvation and eternal life, public confession and baptism – that was not for us.

Faye took more pictures than anyone I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, they have deteriorated quite a bit – it was a lot of work just restoring the few we have on display today. But she was a good photographer. Working in the darkroom for hours led to chemical allergies, but she continued to take pictures as long as she could remember how to work a camera. Her landscape photography was remarkable. And that helped her with another passion of hers, which was oil painting. Her passion for landscapes led her through all 50 States in her lifetime. She actually put together one picture-book for children, though it was never published. She did, however, publish my Dad’s memoirs. How we wish she had also written her own.

When Dad died, she began the last 15 year chapter of her life in this world. Her next house was designed the way she liked it – bright and airy, rather than dark and moody. She became involved in her community as she had not been before – especially with quilting and genealogy and exercise. And she suddenly found a vigorous voice when it came to politics. She attended church here occasionally, because she always supported her sons. Micki knew that same support – Faye drove Micki to her own mother’s funeral when my injured back had me laid out. Faye was definitely a second Mom to Micki.

The last 10 years were hard for Faye. Her mother had sunk into deep dementia before she died, and her younger sister, Jean, went down that same, long path. Faye cared for Jean as long as she could. She also enrolled in a John’s Hopkins program testing Alzheimer’s treatments. This meant that she had regular screening, and against all our hopes, it soon became evident that she had the same disease.

Our grief is focused today, but it’s been smeared across ten years of losing Mom a little bit at a time. It’s not like she became a different person – she didn’t. Right up to her last illness, her caretakers remarked about her graciousness and warm smile. She had a great smile. And I can tell you that I never heard her complain about her condition – not even once.

The disease didn’t change who she was; it’s just that there was less of her every week. At first, it was just her short-term memory. Then she began to forget things, and confuse people. The folks who cared for her in her Alzheimer’s unit thought my name was David, because she referred t me as her older brother). Once, she thought I was her Dad – but that’s understandable because I look a lot like him, especially in the way I’m follicly-challenged (bald). It didn’t matter though. She was always glad to see us – I think she recognized us, even if the names were hard. And besides, we always remembered her.

There was one short period that was fun – that when she started having great-grandchildren. There were a few weeks when I would go in and tell her about her grand-children, and it each time, it was as if she had just heard it for the first time. That was fun.

But that was all that was fun – for me, anyway. Frankly, my faith was greatly challenged by her Alzheimer’s. For several years, I agonized with God over her deterioration. The Bible says that God always works good out of difficult circumstances for those who love him. Mom never told me that she loved God – and even if she did, I wondered how could God ever use such a scourge as Alzheimer’s disease?

And then, and I believe it was partly in answer to prayers, there came a period – before serious confusion took over – when Mom got younger. She began to react to flowers and trees and nature with the wonderment you usually only see in children. I believe that the Alzheimer’s actually reduced her mental age – took her back for a short while to the days of her youth, when her interest in God had been redirected by her parents. And then, back before even that.

She said she wanted to come to church regularly. And through some very special people here who brought her every week, she got to know some genuine Christians outside of her own family. She liked what she saw. She sat in the front row here a couple of years. True, she often went to sleep during the sermon, but there’s nothing really unusual about that(!) She asked for a Bible, though by then she couldn’t read it. We did get some very child-like books about God’s promises and such, and she liked it when I read to her from them.

Then one week, both to me and to others, she worked very hard to ask something. Her ability to frame sentences was so frail that it took her three tries that week to communicate it to me. She wanted to be baptized. She wasn’t content to just sit there and enjoy her new faith; she wanted to go up front and be baptized for all to see. Her faith was childlike, but it was one of the last fully rational things she ever did. The God who turned the cross into the gate to eternal life had actually used the Alzheimer’s for good!

And consistent with her new faith, Faye changed. While she didn’t always respond a whole lot to me as I droned on, or sang to her – yet, whenever I read the Bible, or prayed, she would get a big smile, or raise one hand up toward heaven. And she did give me a smile whenever I told her how much I was looking forward to spending eternity with her.

I miss Mom today. I know I will see her again, though – not with confusion on her wrinkled face, but with that winning smile of hers. The smile that will forever delight the God she was moved to seek so long ago, and finally found.

Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us …. we have become orphans …” (Lamentations 5:1–3)

Mom died today.

I’m certainly grateful that her final struggle is done. Anyone who has cared for a parent with Alzheimer’s knows that you lose a little more of that special person with every visit. It is a great comfort knowing that one of her very last rational decisions brought her to faith. Faye was well cared for in both assisted living and at the nursing center.

Still, one is never ready for the day when you become an orphan. After Dad’s death fifteen years ago, I expected this day to arrive. But a parent is an irreplaceable thing. When the relationship orbits closer, and when it arcs farther away, a parent always provides … not a second home, but a second haven. A face that recognizes you as none other can. A door that always opens. A history that is part of what you are.

When both parents are gone, there is an emptiness beyond the grief of losing someone you love. However much they have done for you and however old you are, when they are gone, you become an orphan. Nothing – not even your web of friends and family – can change the fact that you have become profoundly alone in a new way.

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18–19)

Jesus understood this aloneness as the legacy of human death. Praises to God for every parent and child reunited in the new heavens and new earth. But Jesus came to eliminate my orphan-ness even more fundamentally. He restored familial roots with my Creator that were torn and shredded by sin. The cross reconnected me with a parent’s love that will never pass away – because this Parent will never pass away. I feel alone in my little world decorated with past memories. But I will never be alone in the universe I have yet to shape in eternal fellowship with my Lord.

Being an orphan is hard. But bless the Living God – he loves orphans.

Transforming Grace is no more … on the radio.

For years now, every Sunday morning at 9:30, radio listeners in Baltimore were greeted by an SPEP sermon wrapped in the compelling theme music of Transforming Grace. (For those interested, it was “Point Reyes,” from Tim Janis’ CD, Water’s Edge).  Recently, however, WRBS decided to restructure their programming, and the 9:30 teaching slot was eliminated. They kindly offered us an attractive alternative slot, but the change gave us the opportunity to reevaluate our communication strategy. What do we want to communicate? Who are we trying to reach?

With decades of media experience between them, our own Craig and Andrew worked with other church leaders to help us through the necessary decisions to move forward. They helped us expand our vision to see the possibilities of an internet-based communication strategy. Consequently, the considerable money we planned to invest in radio over the next three years will, instead, be invested in developing the infrastructure and expertise necessary to record and transmit content over the web.

Some of our new goals;

  • Stream live (and recorded) worship video to shut-in’s and people who for some reason cannot make it to church on Sunday morning. This will expand Transforming Grace availability beyond the confines of one half hour a week in the Baltimore area.
  • Make teaching content of all kinds accessible anytime online. This would be great for us (think of making up one class at home instead of having to take a whole church course over), and great for anyone searching the web for good teaching.
  • Provide  training that is integrated with the web, providing some content at our convenience at home, thus better leveraging the face-to-face time we spend in discipleship.
  • Provide media to warmly welcome and orient local folks looking for a church home.

The same equipment and expertise used for these projects will also be available to create media for other venues if we so desire – such as CD’s DVD’s, TV and radio.

This is a three year plan that will require some cosmetic upgrades to our facility as well as technical upgrades behind the scenes. It may also present a learning curve for a number of us, so please ask God to give us grace.

Hopefully, it will all be worth it as we continue the legacy of Transforming Grace by making God’s Word much more available.

Q:You probably have already seen this video. [popular video of a wedding party enthusiastically dancing down the aisle]. My parents and I are at a disagreement over this video. They say that it’s in appropriate to enter the ceremony that way, that it’s a sacrament that’s meant to be taken seriously. I believe that God would want you to delight in such a union and as long as the actual vow part is serious it shouldn’t matter how your entrance is. I was just wondering what your take on this is?

A:Yes, I have seen the video. No surprise that it raises disagreements. The Bible talks about what a marriage is, but not about what kind of ceremony is most appropriate. Experience tells us that to a large extent, ceremonies are a matter of one’s culture. In America, culture is split not only along ethnic, regional and economic lines, but also – and largely – along age lines. What your parents might find culturally appropriate and what you might find so are two different things.

You might be interested to check out 2 Samuel 6:12-22, when David introduced energetic, joyful dancing into an extremely holy ceremony. The issue there was both his dancing and what he was wearing. Who was right, he or his wife? Notably, the Lord does not chasten David.

If this were an real issue in a family (i.e., planning for a wedding), I would encourage everyone to:

  • Think through what a wedding is, and how its nature can best be expressed. It’s one thing to disagree over how to express holiness and joy; it’s another to disagree, for example, on whether or not a wedding is a holy occasion at all. If everyone agrees on its nature, then the discussion will make better progress.
  • A couple can be married privately by a Justice of the Peace without any ceremony. The choice to have a wedding ceremony is a choice to involve many parties – the couple, the parents and relatives, the guests and the church. All of those parties must be appropriately considered.
  • Remember that God is honored when people show deference to each other (Romans 12:10 and Philippians 2:3-4).

I think that it is great that this video has prompted discussion over wedding ceremonies. I suspect that it will seriously encourage Americans to create ceremonies that move away from tradition and more honestly reflect their beliefs and sensibilities. This should give Christians the opportunity to make their ceremonies a more effective testimony of their faith.

So much is being written about the death, funeral, music, career, family, etc., etc., etc. of Michael Jackson that I have little to add. (One of my favorite posts is at View from Here).

My own observation has to do with the fact that Jackson’s mega-event funeral did not involve any church.

The influence of the church in society at large (outside of its doors on Sunday) is almost non-existent. In the US, religion has been successfully corralled to Sunday worship with only a few exceptions: weddings and funerals. That is to say, people who never darkened the door of a church could be counted on to do so when attending a loved one’s wedding or funeral. The broad church being what it is, that did not mean that people actually heard the gospel on these occasions, but they nevertheless remembered the significance of Christianity as an organized religion.

For some time now, this last small vestige of religion’s specialness has been dissolving. More and more weddings are conducted by civil or para-church clergy in a non-church context. Funerals have been something of a hold-out, however. True, a funeral home is not a church – but they have in the past been made to “feel” like church, with churchy music and a minister-type presiding from up front.

I think Michael Jackson’s public funeral may have been a milestone in normalizing the non-religious funeral. We would not have expected the music industry to do anything different than what it did. But I suspect that the cultural size of the event – out of all rational proportion – shattered the stained glass barrier that constrained funerals within a religious setting. Michael Jackson epitomized “it’s OK to be what you want to be.” Nothing new there. But a funeral with such huge cultural clout without any church connection has, in my view, marked as “complete” the marginalization of religion in America. I think millions of the young and young middle aged will think, “that is the kind of funeral I want” – lots of sentiment along with a little flash and glamor, but with none of the restrictive quality of church standards and fixed ideas.

Spirituality is in; religion is out. That has been the trend for some time.  But Jackson’s funeral was such a powerful cultural role model that I think it may serve as the tipping point for the younger half of society to sever organized religion from its last tie with our culture: funerals. Exalting sentiment and artistry over character and rational hope in so strident a manner will coax the anti-religious approach to death out of the closet and into the new mainstream.

Given the state of religion in our country, that may not be an entirely bad thing. It does, however, signal the need for an entirely new approach to the church’s witness. We must, of course, cultivate biblical religion all the more, showing by example what godly religion is supposed to be. But at the same time, we must finally accept that we cannot depend on the old cultural advantages of religion. We must approach our witness as a minority group, concentrating on gospel clarity, our own character, and expressing God’s common grace to our society.

I just received this note from the NFL – responding to the one I sent them last Christmas:

————————-

Dear Mr. Parkinson,

The National Football League has absolutely no objection to churches and others hosting Super Bowl viewing parties as long as they do not charge admission and that the game is shown in a television of the type commonly used at home.

We are simply following copyright law and have done so consistently with regard to hotels, theaters, museums, schools, arenas and other such venues.

This is nothing new. It is a matter of longstanding policy and the law.

We have no rules that relate to viewing at home on any type of television.

Sincerely,

NFL Public Relations

————————

I appreciate them getting back to me. I also note that they did not address the substance of my comments to them, concerning the way their regulations were applied to churches during the last Super Bowl.

A significant segment of baby boomers has spent decades yearning to play with the toys of Star Trek. Cell phones were stimulated by the passion to own a Communicator, PDA’s quench the thirst for Tricorders (or PAD’s, if you are especially into Next Gen), Tasers passibly function as phasers on stun, and we get to experience Bones’ bio-bed each time we have a CAT scan. Every Trekker knows warp drive really exists – we just have to figure it out.

But the real Holy Grail of Trekdom is the Transporter. That column of twinkling lights thoroughly captured the imagination of a generation that is traffic-bound and over-busy. How I long to be able to “beam” myself across distances instantly. Short circuit cause and effect. No need to travel … just be there.

I think baby boomer believers like myself – especially minister types like me – have a secret yen for a ministry Transporter. We know where we are, because we are very conscious of our own well-being. If we are well trained biblically, we even know where God wants us to go. The result is a prayer that we transmit to a divine Scotty, “Beam me over there, Lord.” No cause and effect. Just be there instantly.

One of the saddest facts of life for a Trekker is that there is no Transporter. It is highly unlikely that such a device could ever exist. It was not even a serious science fiction prediction, but only a cheesy special effect created to save production money. What a shame.

There is certainly no Transporter when it comes to ministry. Typically, real life ministry is cause and effect. God does not beam us or others from one condition to another. If we need to get to a different place, we have to travel there. Need to get past grief? Escape drugs? Rebuild trust? You have to travel there. Spiritual change is a time and energy consuming cause and effect business. The Lord certainly acts behind the scenes with divine power. We even get to experience that power consciously, as we do when we are regenerated and come to faith. Yet, even with being born again, what we consciously experience is not regeneration, but rather conversion – the process of changing our mind about life in repentance, so that we build a new life around faith.

Change is always experienced as a process. James says that “you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Just as you don’t get stronger muscles without a process of exercise, you don’t get stronger or more mature faith without excercising it – often in challenging situations.

There are days when I would give anything for a ministry Transporter. From one high point in life’s terrain, my Tricorder senses another high point some distance away. The Tricorder of wisdom works – that is where I need to go. I flip open my Communicator and ask the Lord to take me there. The Communicator of prayer works. God hears. God cares. God answers my godly request and procedes to take me where I need to go.

But there is no Transporter. To get to one high point from another, I have to travel through the valley in between. In order to mature and grow, faith has to be pounded, stretched, hardened and shaped. “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to discern good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14) Constant use. Trained discernment.

There is no shortcut around hard-won experience, because the change we are after is not really a change in terrain, it is a change in ourselves. The Lord God does not circumvent our souls or our wills by beaming us through challenging trials, because it is our souls themselves that need to change. Rather, he travels with us through the valleys and trains us along the way.

“Gentlemen, the Transporter is out. Phasers on stun. Let’s get moving!”

On our recent Men’s Retreat, two different ideas merged in my mind into a third, which was, for me, a new concept.

In one message, we were urged to evaluate our inner spiritual life and relationship to God by the external and visible measures of our lives – the way we actually spend our money, use our time, etc.

In another message, we were directed to consider 1 Corinthians 11:3, “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” The topic was headship, and we were urged to lead our wives as Christ leads us.

All this led to a flavorful “chocolate runs into peanut butter” moment when the two thoughts collided in my brain. The result is a new observable indicator which makes faith visible: the way that I believe Jesus leads me can be clearly observed in the way I lead my wife. That is, the way that I lead my wife, Micki, expresses my concept of headship. It therefore expresses for all to see (especially me) my own notion – right or wrong – of how Jesus Christ functions as my Lord.

While my words, my confession, express what I think I ought to believe about Jesus’ headship, or Lordship, the way I treat my wife expresses what I actually believe about headship. Therefore, the way I think about her, speak to her and physically treat her captures the way I actually believe Jesus thinks about me and treats me. Do I believe Jesus ponders my welfare every day, or takes me for granted? Do I believe Jesus secretly harbors negative thoughts behind smooth words? Do I believe Jesus treasures who I am (warts and all), or only wishes to “use” me for his purposes?

Indicators (gauges, readouts, etc.) are useful to help us understand what is going on in a system, so we can monitor it and make changes when necessary. As I see deficiencies in the way I think of, or treat Micki, I see deficiencies in my faith. As I see devotion, joy, thoughtfulness and sacrifice in my relationship to my beloved, I observe the confidence I have in Jesus’ Lordship over me. Here is another gauge to monitor my soul and encourage a more biblical faith.

I wonder if we are developing a culture of crisis – not a culture in crisis, but a culture of crisis?

Of course, this perspective may be personally skewed by a horrendous year of two family deaths, a difficult inheritance for me to arbitrate, and the depressing impact of Alzheimer’s. No, make that three difficult years of serious back operation and recovery for my beloved, Micki. No, better make that six difficult years, including the divorce and re-formation of my daughter. Anyway, you get the point. My perspective may be skewed by a whole heap of personal stress (and I haven’t begun to talk about my current stress points, which are doozies).

But watching the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, I began to wonder if “crisis mode” is becoming the mode of choice, or the common way to think about life. The first statement from the mouth of a major TV news anchor was, “In the future, we will all know where we were when we first heard about the massacre.” Hmm. I hadn’t thought to remember where I was when I first heard of it, and that made me feel that somehow I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. My point is not that the shootings were anything but horrific – I literally wept, thinking of the anguish of the parents involved, and imagining what such pain would be like. But if I had not already wept, the TV coverage was determined that I would – and more than once, if possible. And this horror will be drained of all possible emotional content until another arises to replace it.

The nature of modern media – not just TV, but now the internet and cell phones – assures that selected crises can and will draw the attention of the entire nation. In other words, our own personal trials are no longer enough. Now, we must enter into the personal torment of others – others we do not know, and whose agonies are chosen for us by the whims of the larger media.

I suppose this only seems natural to generations who have watched thousands and thousands of brief stories on TV and in the movies, from westerns to comedies to dramas. Every one of them, from Gunsmoke to CSI, to Mash, to Lord of the Rings, are designed to grip our souls and take us through a crisis to its resolution in one sitting. Before movies and TV, people would only be exposed to that kind of theatrical art on only a couple of occasions in a lifetime. Earlier, most drama had been in the form of reading, which invites the thoughtful, active participation of the reader, rather than the hotter medium of theater, which is much more passive for the participant.

Anyway, my point is that I wonder whether managed news-casting has added another dimension to modern theater, and that using theater to model our response to crisis has become our chief method for learning how to live. In other words, are we learning how to behave by imbibing scripted crises and watching how they are resolved?

If so, this is especially significant because in this country, Christian faith used to play a larger role in such a response, even in the media. This response included not only comfort and hope, but also humility before God’s judgment and supplication for his grace.

Now, however, secular institutions have largely taken over that priestly role. Alongside the traditional impact of TV and movies, the news media determines what emotionally stresses us, while the comments of institutional leaders and the reactions of the newscasters give us the cues that condition how to respond correctly.

Case in point: the memorial service at Virginia Tech. Representatives from four religious traditions, Islam, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian, all said essentially the same thing as the psychologist, which was that we simply had to hang in there and collectively cope with the insanity of life. No answers, no reason. Just the well meaning but ultimately empty encouragement to cling to others until you can once again get on with your own goals.

Presenting the gospel in such a setting would have been hard for most to hear. Not that it is hard to speak of God’s love, of course. But after a bit, we need more than that. We need to understand the issues that put God and mankind against each other and justly expose us to the horrible consequences of our own sin. Unfortunately, those who condition our collective response these days demand that religion – all religions – fall in line and contribute to the liturgy of we are wonderful; God is nice; too bad life is insane; lets help each other get through this sad-but-temporary blip so we can all get back to our personal dreams.

The Virginia Tech community and families deserve more than that. I deserve more than that. As a creature made in the image of God, I deserve to be faced with the real truth about sin, and the truth about real redemption.

But day after day, one horror after another works to emotionally tear us down and condition our response. An increasing number of these crises are forced upon us by the larger media and shepherded by a new priesthood of secular institutions who use community spirit to maintain the “sacredness” of personal aspirations in a world they insist makes no ultimate sense at all. In the long run, this will only cultivate more and more self-centeredness and despair.

Obviously, my intent is not to impugn or denigrate any the people who are trying their best to deal with an unimaginable horror. I appreciate their efforts, and my heart goes out to them. My point is that contemporary Christians live in a milieu in which the biblical worldview is desperately needed, while those who condition cultural behavior maintain a death grip on a philosophy that insists on personal meaning without any rational underpinnings. As a consequence, one of the most difficult challenges for those who love the biblical gospel is to find an effective way to speak in today’s public forum. There will be no way to avoid sounding “foolish,” as the Apostle Paul put it, but we must try to find a way to compellingly offer the gospel of rational hope as an alternative to brave despair.

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